First published: Fall 2009
I curated a retrospective on the work of the Reverend Howard Finster for the Museum of American Folk Art in 1989. The poet Allen Ginsberg came to a preopening party of the exhibition for a 'meet and greet' with the artist. He told me that he had been down to Paradise Garden in Georgia a few years earlier, but that Howard wasn't giving 'sermons' to visitors that day.
He said that he enjoyed seeing the artwork in the Garden, took many photographs and bought a Finster cutout in the gift shop. He asked me if I could introduce him to Howard and I said, 'Sure, my pleasure'. He then motioned me to the side of the room, where we continued our conversation.
He said, 'I want you to introduce me as a homosexual. Tell him that I was born that way'. He went on to tell me that several of his friends who were familiar with Finsters' work thought that he was anti-gay and that in some of his paintings he had written that AIDS was God's revenge for homosexuals. Now, the stage was set in a way I hadn't anticipated and potential trouble was brewing – it was up to Finster to give a good or bad 'performance'.
I brought Allen up to the table where Howard was signing exhibition posters and motioned to him that I wanted him to meet someone. I knew Howard well enough by then (having written a biography on him) to know that he was impressed by celebrities (from wrestlers to politicians), even if he didn't know who they were.
So, I said, 'Howard, this is a famous poet. He writes poetry, like you do. His name is Allen Ginsberg. He is a homosexual. He was born that way'. Howard turned his head away slowly and paused for what seemed an eternity and then looked directly at Ginsberg and said, 'What is, is.'
A smile came over Ginsberg's face and he said, 'I'm glad to make your acquaintance. Can I take a few pictures of you?'
A while later, I took a cab with Ginsberg over to the Paine Weber building and gave him a tour of the exhibition. We then sat down and I asked him about his impressions of Finster and the show.
'I think Finster is a poet; why not? Bob Dylan thinks of himself as a poet primarily, more than that as a musician. Finster writes verses and there are inspired moments in the verses. There are moments when you get 'genius' phrasing that is extraordinary. For example, the phrasing on his one particular tower (Castle of Words) has '… the door to the other world is to step through your shadow'. That is somewhat Blakeian.